The provincial Transit Investment Panel has published the second of three discussion papers in advance of public meetings slated to start next week. The paper is entitled “The Transit We Need” and it addresses filtering criteria by which possible transit projects should be judged.
This paper is odd on a few counts. First off, it covers similar territory to the first “Hard Truths” paper by talking about meaningful criteria for inclusion of projects in competition for funding. Second, it does not include specific proposals for alternatives to The Big Move, even though such a proposal was mooted by the panel’s Vice Chair Paul Bedford at a recent public presentation at UofT and obliquely mentioned in a Globe and Mail commentary (only available online).
The idea of a regional relief line that would connect several of the existing and proposed Metrolinx projects in a single line linking municipalities from Mississauga to Markham via downtown Toronto is worthy of exploration. Indeed, Metrolinx is in the midst of studying regional relief strategies right now. This would not constitute a re-mapping of the Big Move, but rather a strategic modification to better accommodate current and anticipated growth.
There is a fascination recently with advocacy for anything that might remove the need to build the Downtown Relief Line (or Don Mills Subway, or whatever we might call it), and the “Big U”, as Bedford calls it, is politically attractive because it goes out into the 905. There is even a possibility at some distant future date that counter-peak flow to job centres in the 905 would add to the value of such a line provided that there is any local transit service to act as a distributor.
This does not eliminate the need for more local capacity into the core area especially if fare structures leave 905 residents clamouring for a subway to give them a cheap, frequent ride into downtown and riders from the 416 be damned.
The panel proposes a number of filters by which new lines would be evaluated, but gives no indication of the relative priority of these filters, or any relationship between the capital (and future operating) cost of a line versus the effect it might have (or not have) under these criteria. This is rather like someone saying that we will cut taxes through “elimination of waste” without bothering to define the term or explaining how to find it.
The panel claims that its paper deals with “deciding what to build” and “ensuring accountability for these investments”. This is not necessarily the same as “the transit we need”, and depends a great deal on how one defines “need”. This is particularly poignant in the ongoing battle between “regional” and “local” needs where a would-be rider in Mississauga is somehow more important than one in Don Mills, at least in priorities for improved transit.
As for accountability, that would apply to a hot dog stand as much as to a rapid transit network, and at best the relationship to our “need” is that money misspent is not available for what is really needed.
The panel notes that circumstances have changed since The Big Move was proposed, notably in the financial environment where the streets are now paved, if at all, not with gold, but with tin. Moreover:
New research has emerged on the critical importance of linking public transit to employment and on the extent to which job growth is occurring in areas not served by The Big Move’s proposed projects.
This touches on two points. First, The Big Move was a grab-bag of plans from the GTA municipalities and Queen’s Park, and it represented more a consensus of dreams than a rigourous analysis of how the network could and should behave. Related to this was the strongly core-oriented nature of major routes that would improve capacity to downtown Toronto, but much less for regional travel. Regional planning is still strongly based on the park-and-ride model, one which falls apart as garage space becomes expensive to provide and one which is totally unsuited to trips that don’t originate with car-owning homes (not to mention travel to locations badly served by local transit, unlike Union Station).
A further problem was that Queen’s Park could not stomach a pricetag above $50-billion, or $2b/year over 25 years. Projects fell off of the table to keep the number within that limitation, and we have no idea of what was left out, or how it might fit with an updated network proposal today.
Second, there is an emphasis on employment centres over residential density. Definitely, such centres provide compact destinations to which travellers might ride, but they have to come from somewhere. The Toronto subway is packed with riders who are, mainly, going to dense employment and academic areas, but is fed by a network of (mainly) bus routes that collect riders from residential areas beyond the subway’s reach.
A fundamental flaw in much thought about high capacity routes in Toronto is that they must be lined with density. No. They must be well served by routes that connect the high density to the rapid transit lines. Conversely, just because an area may be lower density today does not mean that there is no transit demand flowing through that neighbourhood even if little is generated locally. If GO Transit were held to the same standards we profess to apply to subway lines, none of that network would exist because the density at the stations, by and large, would not support the service.
People live all over the region, and we cannot wish away their distribution by saying they are in the wrong place, or that we won’t give them rapid transit until they all huddle together near a “mobility hub”. The challenge is to concentrate the demand through a combination of feeders, pedestrian/cycling access from nearby residential areas, and, yes, parking as a last resort.
The Panel is convinced that a plan to pay for new transit cannot be separated from how we select the projects themselves. In particular, given the current financial pressures on the provincial government, prudence dictates that recommendations for new dedicated funding will result in a network of high performing rapid transit lines.
That sounds good on paper, although decades of experience suggests that buying votes may take precedence. I agree that projects need to be justified and prioritized, but this does not get past the question of whether political need will take priority over network benefits.
Transit investments must help ease congestion.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This shibboleth is central to so much of what Metrolinx has been doing, and even Metrolinx acknowledges that, at best, full buildout of The Big Move will only keep “congestion” from getting any worse. The famous “32 minutes” we hear so much about is not a saving relative to today’s travel, but relative to what tomorrow could be like if we do nothing. Moreover, the saving will be uneven across the network. Some trips will benefit immensely from a faster and more convenient journey while others see little benefit at all.
Relative to today, given the painfully slow progress on building (as opposed to announcing) projects, we will be lucky to see much of that 32 minutes. The target date for completing The Big Move keeps drifting off into the future, but the growth in population, jobs and traffic does not.
Easing congestion will only occur with major shifts in travel either completely off of the road network, or through increased total capacity of that network through mechanisms such as conversion of space from auto to transit use, a process that may net out to more capacity, but no less congestion for auto travellers.
This raises the question of “whose congestion do we measure”? The motorist stuck on the DVP, the subway rider who cannot board their train or the bus riders who cannot reach their rapid transit line thanks to inadequate and unreliable feeder services?
If the GTA population were fairly static, we could expect to open a new line, whatever it may be, and see an immediate effect in parallel road traffic. Unfortunately, in the decade it will take to build any major route like the Scarborough Subway or the Crosstown LRT, the region’s population will grow by 1 million and the original reference point for “congestion” will be a distant memory.
There is little sign that spending will be advanced in an attempt to get ahead of the growth curve, and we will be lucky just to stay level with it. Past experience is not encouraging.
If “congestion” is narrowly defined as problems with the road network, this will disenfranchise transit users everywhere who must pack on to increasingly crowded vehicles to travel even though they are the majority of trips to the central business district.
As a side note, the panel’s criteria are completely silent on goods movement, an issue often raised at Metrolinx meetings. This is definitely a road capacity issue, but the locations of congestion that affect trucking are very different from the commuting corridors where major transit investments have been proposed.
Transit investments must add up to a connected region-wide network.
This is a great motherhood statement, but the section is highjacked with advocacy for the “regional relief line” or “big U”. There are many areas both in the 905 and in the 416 that are nowhere near the “big U” and would benefit little from it. If we are serious about a network, we need to talk about things on that basis, not say “we need a network” and then focus on one line. That’s rather like saying “build a subway on Yonge Street and all your problems are solved”.
Transit networks need more than rapid transit to be effective. Connections with local transit should be seamless. Transit operators in the GTHA must work together to deliver coordinated schedules, consistent traveller information, and integrated fare systems.
I beg your pardon? Local transit? What a novel idea! This is far less a question of local operators working together than it is one of funding for transit operations. What we see everywhere is pressure for cutbacks in public spending, and even the “local component” of the Metrolinx Investment Strategy is aimed more at capital than operating needs.
Also missing from this statement, although it shows up later and was a central point in “Hard Truths”, is the fact that “rapid transit” is not just subways or frequent GO trains. A widely spaced network of high capacity services leaves a lot of blank space on the map, space that should be served by a mix of operations from local bus routes right up to LRT lines on arterial medians.
Active transportation options should be included in the plan. Walking and cycling can be the most cost-effective travel options, with low infrastructure costs and minimal operating costs.
This is an aspect of local access, but we will not have everyone in walking or cycling distance with a coarse network of a few lines. This requires better local transit and lower-scale “rapid transit” infrastructure.
Transit projects must align with current and future employment locations.
As I have already said, the employment (and academic) centres are only one end of the trip. If riders cannot get from their homes to the rapid transit network, then it will not serve all of its potential market.
Ridership within walking distance of transit is a major contributor to successful transit.
I agree that this is a major contributor, although the recent Scarborough Subway decision flouts this on a grand scale. Good feeder services are also important and residential density does not have to be at or next door to a subway station. Just look at Kennedy or Warden Stations. More density at these stations would be nice, but it is not essential to their success.
Another important issue here is that the behaviour of transit and employment is strongly coloured in Toronto by the nature of downtown Toronto. Toronto is “half a city” as one wry commentator (in Edmonton) observed many years ago. The travel patterns are concentrated on the north side of Lake Ontario, and even then the “pie” isn’t evenly split between east and west. An employment centre in, say, Mississauga is not served by a “funnel” of transit lines bringing riders from the north, east and south to one point, but by trips originating from all directions. Similarly, residential populations along, say, Sheppard Avenue are not bound only for King & Bay, but also for Mississauga and Markham.
It is much more difficult to concentrate travellers to the smaller suburban nodes where a dispersed origin-destination pattern already exists than it is to bring more people into downtown Toronto. To put it another way, the network has to work harder to achieve a good modal split because it must draw riders from a wider territory where there is little established transit infrastructure.
“Future employment locations” are tricky. We can draw development nodes on a map, but unless we are prepared to force development to actually occur there (and not elsewhere), this is an abstract exercise that will almost certainly fail. Toronto’s own experience over past decades shows the folly of presuming we can direct growth exactly and only where we want it.
… jobs that have good transit access have a much lower percentage of people who drive to work. For instance, only 24% of people who work in Toronto’s financial core take their cars.
By 2031, the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe estimates that there will be 850,000 new workers in the GTHA. Of these, half will be working in offices. During peak hours, the ratio of workers to non-workers among transit riders is four to one. The research makes it clear that the role of office development in generating ridership is pivotal. The key factors determining the location of these jobs will be location of transit, planning permissions, development-ready sites, and economic conditions which are competitive.
To date, we have not been entirely successful at integrating land use, economics, and transportation planning.
That last line is a masterful understatement.
What we do know is that development concentration in Toronto is shifting back to the core, and this is part of a world-wide pattern driven by the cost and time constraints of commuting to dispersed centres. We must be careful not to justify transit spending to “future employment centres” that will still be growing grass three decades from now.
Transit projects decisions should be coordinated with the location of community and public institutions.
This is a rather interesting statement coming as it does immediately after the heading
The Transit We Need Serves Homes and Destinations
These are not the same things. “Community … institutions” are not “homes”. By all means, serve residences, but recognize that many of them are in areas that individually will never be dense enough to support major rapid transit investment. They are, however, essential as part of the catchment area that will connect with rapid transit via the feeder network.
As for “community and public institutions”, there is a corollary requirement that such facilities be located where they can be easily served by transit, not buried off of main streets where access may be impossible. Planning for public institutions to be where people can easily reach them is as important as for private developments.
Locating these important uses in car-dependent areas makes absolutely no sense. They must be connected to public transit.
Poor access includes configurations where a major destination sits in an office park or mall surrounded by acres of parking with a bus stop that is just barely visible through the haze a long, unprotected walk from the “community institution”. This begs the question of whether planning should force major developments to reverse their traditional layout with a core of offices and shops surrounded by parking to one with more buildings on the perimeter and the parking, if parking there must be, on the interior. If we continue to build major centres based on auto access, then transit accessibility will be stymied.
The type of transit must be appropriate for the situation, accounting for current and
future ridership, cost, environment, and fiscal impacts.
This is a repetition from the “Hard Truths”. The transit technology and infrastructure must fit the location and demand. We cannot and should not build subways everywhere.
Contrary to the myth that subways are the only good form of rapid transit, the truth is that an effective and sustainable public transit network depends on matching the technology to the circumstances.
A great sentiment, but one that will meet with substantial political opposition in some quarters. Between vanity projects and vote buying, not to mention the panic any proposal to take road space away from cars brings in motorists, subways have a big edge with commuter rail a distant second mainly because of the limited supply of corridors.
If we are to be serious about LRT and BRT, then Metrolinx and the politicians who will ultimately approve these projects must be prepared to argue for the overall benefit in cost effectiveness, flexibility, speed of construction and appropriateness of surface transit modes. This is difficult when there are no big success stories in the GTHA as a poster child for alternatives to subways.
Project investments can build confidence in the full plan by phasing implementation.
Queen’s Park and Metrolinx have undermined their credibility by linking the phasing of projects in the “First Wave” of The Big Move to provincial financing and cash flow constraints. Terrified of borrowing and the increase of provincial debt, the government has pushed projects that could be open or close to it off to the indefinite future. The phasing of projects like the Crosstown and, in future plans, GO electrification guarantees that nobody will actually benefit from the investment and disruption for years.
The decision to build the Crosstown as one “big bang” project should be grounds for dismissal of whoever cooked up that scheme. It is probably too late to change things now, but we will suffer a long time and spend billions before the first rider gets on a train from Mount Dennis to Kennedy.
Phased improvements should be essential parts of any transit proposal.
Investments must provide tangible benefits and improvements in the short-term.
This criterion is related to the phasing proposal above. People want to see better transit service, faster travel times, and, where it is actually possible, less congestion, and they want to see it now.
The fastest way this will happen will be through improved local transit service, but this is an area where Queen’s Park and Metrolinx fear to tread because it opens the Pandora’s box of local operating subsidies and active “encouragement” for municipalities to devote more resources to their transit systems.
A related problem is fare levels especially when trips cross boundaries or interface with GO Transit. GO proudly trumpets its high cost recovery while discouraging use of its network especially in the 416 with discriminatory high fares for short journeys and no transfer privileges to/from the TTC. A high cost recovery does not mean that the network is doing the job it could, especially if spending more on fare and service integration could improve the overall network.
The Transit We Need has Strong Accountability and Transparency
This section of the panel’s report concentrates on “following the money” so that a taxpayer can, figuratively, put a dimes in the meter at Broadview and Danforth and see them pop out blocks away in real benefits without nickles disappearing along the way to bad spending decisions.
However, there is the matter of “transparency”. This is not just a case of tracking the money, but of having open, honest discussions about plans, something Metrolinx has been notoriously bad at since its inception. Part of this flows from its status as a provincial agency where any announcements are stage managed as photo ops for the Premier and Minister, and musing about possible new networks simply is not done in public.
If people are going to believe in any new governance system, they must see that its work is open to view, that decisions arise from well-understood and supported planning, not from the need to win elections. No single transit project will be popular across the GTHA, but voters everywhere need to feel that decisions are not being skewed to serve short-term interests, or worse, to undo decisions that appeared to have been settled years before.
There is little new in this paper, and in particular, no explanation of how the various filtering mechanisms might interact or affect the current Big Move network.
Buried in a footnote is a reference that this scheme is not intended to replace the existing Metrolinx Benefits Case Analyses which, as I have written elsewhere, have serious flaws in methodology, notably their project focus rather than network level of comparative analysis.
The real purpose for which the panel was created was the examination of financing schemes for The Big Move. This will come in the third paper, with luck before the public meetings start next week. Even here, we are missing a fundamental piece of information: how much money are we trying to raise overall and how should this be staged in time? It is no secret that The Big Move will cost more than the originally claimed $50-billion, if only through inflation, not to mention operating and maintenance costs and the local component of transit operations.
Nowhere is there any hint that the panel is examining not just the “how” but the “how much” of this problem.